The Biden Administration aims to close Guantanamo Bay, White House press secretary Jen Psaki has confirmed. The facility, which Obama promised to close but never did, currently houses 40 prisoners, only one of whom has been convicted of a crime. Psaki said that they hope Guantanamo Bay, which has long been a source of contention and debate across the political spectrum, will be shut by the end of their term in office. This is a markedly different approach to that taken by Former President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order in 2018 to keep the prison open. Trump also considered increasing the number of inmates in Guantanamo bay, though he never did.
Guantanamo Bay, located in Cuba and often referred to as ‘Gitmo’, first opened in 2002, and has held roughly 780 prisoners over its almost 20 years of operation. Currently, however, only 39 captives and one convict remain. The facility is very expensive; each prisoner costs taxpayers $13 million a year. To put that figure into perspective, the most dangerous inmates in federal prisons cost taxpayers $78,000 a year, or over 38 times less than those in Gitmo. Yet, despite referring to its steep cost as ‘crazy’, Former President Trump and his administration decided that it was in the best interest of Americans to keep the prison open, citing security concerns.
Biden is expected to sign executive orders on Guantanamo Bay in the coming weeks and months, though closing the prison will not be easy. Many of the prisoners who remain in Gitmo are hard-line terrorists who are both dangerous and deeply disturbed. One of these men is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, labelled ‘the principle architect of the 9/11 attacks’. Mohammed has been at Guantanamo Bay since 2006, and can never be released into the public because of the threat he poses to society. For others, such as Muieen Adeen al Sattar, it is the American government’s inability to find a country they can be repatriated to that is the cause of their long detention.
Opponents of Gitmo argue that it runs contrary to the American values of tolerance and due process, as many of the inmates have not received a fair trial despite being prisoners for more than a decade. The prison has also been the source of many infamous controversies, after it was revealed that (under the Bush administration’s watch) prisoners were subject to torture and inhumane treatment. Many of the prisoners’ freedom of religion was impeded, as guards harassed prisoners whilst they were practising their religion and even desecrated the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. There is also an argument that keeping Gitmo open actually increases the number of terrorists worldwide, as the detention centre is often used as a recruiting tool by jihadists to radicalize young, impressionable Muslims.
Proponents of Guantanamo Bay point to security concerns to justify keeping the prison open. If Gitmo is closed, its inmates will have to either be tried, released, or transferred to another prison on the mainland. This poses serious logistical questions, as high-profile terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will have to be kept away from prisoners who are not terrorists, in case they radicalise or harm them. There are also concerns about prisoners who are released, as there is a good chance that some will engage in further terrorist activities. There are many cases of former-inmates who have done so, such as Jamal Udeen Al-Harith, who was held in Guantanamo Bay for more than two years before being released to the UK in 2004. He died carrying out a suicide bombing in Syria in 2017.
The question of what to do about Guantanamo Bay has existed since the facility was first opened, though now, with only 40 detainees remaining, it becomes even more pressing. The new administration’s support for closing the facility will certainly not be met without opposition, but with the Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, that is unlikely to matter. If Biden succeeds and the centre is closed, it would mark the start of a new chapter in both ‘The War on Terror’ and American foreign policy as a whole.